By Anna Katrina Bak
Pictured, my idealized bedside table. I’ve captured the only time last year I bought myself fancy, non-bodega flowers. I haven’t framed my favorite Will Barnet print. I’ve since given up on the classic but loudly ticking Braun clock in favor of an iphone alarm.The cat who treats the table as his launch pad to the bed is absent. And the books are piled onto an overstuffed bookshelf a few feet away. While they function as a literary security blanket, they’re hardly Lunesta in book form.
I found Self-Help on a Park Slope stoop, consumed it over the duration of two subway rides, and have since read most of Lorrie Moore’s books (current favorite: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?). I left this copy at a Girls at Library book exchange, hoping another woman would discover her by happenstance. Or, possibly, I was the last remaining girl in New York who didn’t know who Lorrie Moore was.
Northanger Abbey was ordered on Abebooks from one of my favorite booksellers in England, Mr. G.D. Price. If you want delectable British editions of classic paperbacks from the 60s and 70s, he’s indispensable. I have a Wodehousian conception of Mr. Price, settled in a wing chair in his paneled library, a hound at his elbow and a pipe in his hand, mailing out books to America when the whim strikes him. I’m not sure if Northanger Abbey is anyone’s favorite Austen, but it’s a delicious hybrid of gothic romance and dark humor.
I’ve read so many Anita Brookner novels that they’ve merged into one dense tapestry of alone-yet-not-lonely middle-aged Londoners hoping to avoid quagmires of emotion and human connection as they edge through their daily routines. Latecomers is a variation on a theme, populated with more male characters and carrying more historical weight than usual.
The Black Prince is a deep dive into compulsive paranoia. An aging scholar, raging with wounded ego and confused libido flings himself into an obsession with a rival’s daughter. A friend tells me that no one reads Iris Murdoch anymore. Is her writing too pithy, or too pessimistic, or too alcoholic? Is she perceived as stodgy, or self-satisfied? She writes about the catastrophic end points of emotional mayhem within upper middle class intelligentsia like no one else.
Madame de Pompadour is simply a magnificent cream puff of a book. When they put pen to paper, the Mitford sisters can do no wrong, unfortunate political connections aside.
I included Secrets and Surprises because I liked the font, not because I’ve read it.
This copy of Heartburn was signed by Nora Ephron at a reading she gave at the Union Square Barnes and Noble shortly before she died. She was gracious and lovely, and I wished I was related to her, as most women seem to wish. I’ve since realized she possessed a fairly wide streak of ruthlessness, which explains her ability to become more visible rather than less as she grew older, and makes me like her more.
Two Girls, Fat and Thin is a deadpan trot through the lives of women with few illusions left, and has maybe the best designed hardback cover of the 90s. Mary Gaitskill is one of the greatest contemporary authors we have, and everyone arrived at this realization long before I randomly picked this edition up at a used book stall.
I’ll come clean about what books I actually read late at night, when my ability to appreciate brilliant prose is at a shamefully low ebb. Mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, G.K. Chesterton, Rex Stout, et al. Any book by Tana French, and any thriller sold in airport kiosks with “Girl” in the title, or with a cover image of out-of-focus bare branches, snow, and foot prints disappearing into the distance. I also have a passionate love of what my husband laughs at as “Dad Books,” meaning that I will read almost any book about World War II, regardless of quality, and am considering getting into WWI. Contemplating the most horrifying moments in 20th century history helps me get a good night’s sleep.
Anna Katrina Bak is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn.